While many students engaging in study abroad programs do so to experience a new culture, few choose a religiously significant destination not in line with their faith.
Yet in a few days, Wynnewood native Mariana Dougherty will board a flight to Italy, where she will study in the Vatican during part of a semester abroad. Her University of Pittsburgh-sanctioned program is based in Florence, and while she is unsure of specific dates, she knows for certain she will visit the Holy See.
Dougherty grew up attending Adath Israel in Merion, where she became a Bat Mitzvah and was confirmed. She is now a junior at Pitt, where she volunteers with the Challah for Hunger program.
“I was raised Jewish, but my dad is Catholic,” she said. When he told her of a connection to a priest in the Vatican, she immediately contacted the clergyman for an introduction to the city.
“I was always interested in religion as a topic,” Dougherty explained, “and I thought it would be cool to experience such an important part of such a large religion.”
Her time at Pitt has reignited that interest in religion, as she has made friends with various religious beliefs and expanded her knowledge of religions outside of Judaism.
“In high school, a lot of my friends were Jewish. At Pitt, two of my best friends are Catholic. One went to Catholic school and the other is very religious,” Dougherty said, adding with a laugh, “she talks about the Pope all the time.
“At school, I’ve gone to church a couple times with my friends. It’s different, definitely. It’s cool, though, and I’m the first Jewish friend for a lot of them. We have long discussions about the afterlife and religion in general.”
She expressed regret that her Catholic friends will not be joining her in Italy, but pondered if her Jewish faith will add something to her experience.
Likening the trip to a previous visit to Israel, she noted, “I’m excited to compare the two. We went to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem; we saw people praying at the Western Wall. It was really significant.”
While she admits touring the Vatican will “probably not be as emotional” for her as visiting Jerusalem, Dougherty said the art and historical context will provide an unparalleled educational experience.
Although some Jews may not share Dougherty’s desire to visit the Vatican, she “hadn’t thought of it as strange. But, then again, probably not too many other Jews think of it as a place to go.”
None of the other 13 students attending Pitt’s program in Florence are Jewish. Dougherty will live with a host family there, and she is prepared for the stay to involve visits to church services.
“Mostly, I’d like to get a better understanding of what Catholicism is,” she said. “I wanted the cultural immersion of something totally different to what I know.”